Maintaining a Competent U.S. Nuclear Weapons Workforce

©John Rowley/DigitalVision/ThinkstockDuring the Cold War, teams from Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, each supported by Sandia National Laboratories, conducted formal design competitions for the nuclear and non-nuclear components and delivery systems of various nuclear warheads. The designs were then often checked through nuclear explosion tests. However, the design competitions were largely discontinued following the moratorium on nuclear testing in 1992. Instead, the three NNSA laboratories strengthened their technical evaluation and peer-review processes to certify the safety, security, and effectiveness of the nation’s nuclear stockpile and to maintain the necessary science, engineering design, and innovation capabilities in the workforce.

Peer Review and Design Competition in the NNSA National Security Laboratories calls on the NNSA to bring back a series of design competitions that exercise the full end-to-end weapons design process from novel design conception through production and non-nuclear testing of an engineered prototype. While the laboratories’ peer-review processes are currently “healthy and robust,” implementing full design competitions would help maintain a competent workforce, avoid the loss of capabilities essential for responding to evolving threats, and instill confidence in the nation’s nuclear deterrent. The report emphasizes that these competitions should be done with the clear understanding that the prototypes would not enter the nation’s nuclear weapon stockpile.

The Academies’ study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Higher Fuel Economy Standards

©Fuse/Corbis/Getty ImagesIn 2012 the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed new unified standards for fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions over the years 2017 to 2025. The proposed Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards require that vehicles offered for sale in the U.S. attain an average fuel economy of 40.3 to 41 mpg by 2021 and 48.7 to 49.7 mpg by 2025. These standards will require the U.S. new vehicle fleet to double in fuel economy between 2012 and 2025.

The analysis used by the federal agencies to set standards for fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions for new U.S. light-duty vehicles -- passenger cars and light trucks -- from 2017 to 2025 was thorough and of high caliber overall, says Cost, Effectiveness, and Deployment of Fuel Economy Technologies for Light-Duty Vehicles. However, in some cases the report’s estimates differed from those of the agencies, which should pay particular attention to re-analyzing these technologies during the ongoing mid-term review.

Manufacturers are likely to make cars lighter in their efforts to improve fuel economy, and the most current studies say that will have a beneficial effect on safety for society as a whole, especially if the greatest weight reductions come from the heaviest vehicles, the report says. During the transition period when vehicle weights are being reduced, however, variations in weight among vehicles on the road could increase safety risk. NHTSA should carefully consider and, if necessary, take steps that could mitigate possible safety threats that arise.

How much consumers actually value increases in fuel economy is critical to evaluating the costs and benefits of the standards, the report says. The agencies should do more research on consumer valuation of fuel economy and other vehicle attributes, and consumer response to unfamiliar technologies in the vehicle market.

The Academies’ study was funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Better Policies for Rideshare Services

©LDProd/iStock/ThinkstockInnovative transportation services such as carsharing, bikesharing, and transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft are changing mobility for millions of people. As of June 2015, Uber provided more than 1 million rides daily worldwide, while Lyft operated in 60 U.S. cities with more than 100,000 drivers. However, regulation of these services often varies greatly across geographic areas and industry segments.

The rapidly expanding services provided by TNCs raise policy and regulatory challenges with regard to passenger and driver security, public safety, insurance coverage, employment and labor issues, and accessibility and equity, says Between Public and Private Mobility: Examining the Rise of Technology-Enabled Transportation Services. Policymakers and regulators should formulate consistent policies that encourage competition among new and traditional transportation services -- such as taxis and limousines -- in order to improve mobility, safety, and sustainability.

In some cities, regulation of taxi services is more stringent than that of TNCs. Leveling the regulatory playing field requires a reassessment of existing regulations governing taxi, limousine, and TNC services to determine the minimum necessary to ensure quality service and allow effective competition. Regulators at the state and federal levels should also evaluate safety requirements such as background checks for drivers, vehicle inspections, and minimum standards for vehicle liability insurance, the report says.

The report also urges local officials to ensure that the mobility needs of low-income, older, and disabled riders -- many of whom rely on traditional taxis -- are met as these new services expand and evolve. In addition, policymakers and regulators should examine the pros and cons of alternative employment classifications of both TNC and taxi drivers.

Since the report was released, a number of changes in regulation and policy have been proposed or enacted by several jurisdictions, including requiring fingerprints with background checks for drivers and integrating TNCs into public transit systems. The study was funded by the Academies’ Transportation Research Board.

Barriers to Broader Adoption of Plug-ins

©Fuse/Corbis/Getty ImagesThe plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) holds much promise for reducing dependency on oil and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. However, certain barriers, such as the high cost of PEVs, limitations to battery technology, and limited consumer knowledge, stand in the way of their large-scale adoption.

The federal government can offer a range of incentives to help get more PEVs on the road. Overcoming Barriers to Deployment of Plug-in Electric Vehicles says that developing less expensive, better performing batteries is essential to reducing overall vehicle cost, and a market strategy is needed to create awareness and overcome customer uncertainty.

The report focuses on battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, both of which can charge their batteries by plugging into the electric grid. Although the home is the most important component of a charging infrastructure, charging at workplaces provides an additional opportunity to encourage plug-in vehicle adoption and increase the number of miles fueled by electricity, the report says. Local governments should streamline permitting processes and adopt building codes that require new construction to be capable of supporting future charging installations and should encourage workplaces to consider investments in charging infrastructure. The federal government should refrain from direct investment in the installation of public charging infrastructure, however, until more research has been done to understand its role in encouraging broader adoption and use of plug-in electric vehicles.

Without the federal financial purchase incentives, PEVs are not currently cost-competitive with conventional vehicles, the report says. Federal financial purchase incentives should be continued and re-evaluated after a suitable period. In addition, given the research on effectiveness of purchase incentives, the federal government should consider converting the current tax credit to a point-of-sales rebate.

The Academies’ study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Modern Oversight for Freight Rail

©Rick Sargeant/Hemera/ThinkstockApproximately one-third of all freight tonnage today is moved by rail, and shippers of bulk commodities such as grain, coal, and chemicals remain especially dependent on it. However, since 2000, shippers’ rates have been rising faster than railroad cost indexes, prompting complaints about unreliable railroad service.

Freed from most federal restrictions on their rates and service offerings, private freight railroads have become highly innovative and productive over the past three decades. The residual federal regulation that allows some shippers to challenge their rates has not kept pace with the industry’s transformation and should be replaced with a system better-suited for today’s economic circumstances, says Modernizing Freight Rail Regulation. More appropriate, reliable, and usable procedures are needed to resolve rate disputes without threatening the earnings railroads need to pay for their capital-intensive networks.

Under the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, bulk shippers who lack competitive transportation options can challenge rates they believe are unreasonably high, but the formula used to identify challengeable rates is arbitrary and unreliable. The report calls on the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop, test, and refine a new tool for comparing rates charged in markets lacking effective competition with those charged in competitive rail markets for comparable shipments. Rates that substantially exceed their competitive benchmarks would be eligible to be challenged.

This more reliable approach would, in turn, allow the Surface Transportation Board (STB), which regulates railroads, to use faster and more economical methods for judging whether a challenged rate is unreasonable and the shipper deserves relief, the report says. In particular, slow and costly STB hearings could be replaced with more affordable arbitration hearings for shippers with small claims. The recommended regulatory changes would likely require congressional action.

The Academies’ study was funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Targeted Management for Inland Waterways

photo by LaDonna Davis/U.S. Army Corps of EngineersThe federal inland waterways system moves nearly 7 percent of all ton miles of domestic cargo such as coal, petroleum, and food and farm products. Managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the system’s infrastructure consists of more than 36,000 miles of commercially navigable channels.

To ensure that limited resources are directed where they are most essential, the federal inland waterways system needs a sustainable, well-executed plan for maintaining system reliability and performance. Funding and Managing the U.S. Inland Waterways System: What Policy Makers Need to Know says that more targeted operations and maintenance (O&M) investments would prioritize locks and facilities that are most in need of attention and for which the economic impacts of disruption would be highest.

While the system covers a vast geographic area, freight traffic is highly concentrated, with about 50 percent of barge cargo moving on six major corridors -- including the Mississippi, Illinois, and Ohio rivers. The distribution of funding toward more essential facilities is already occurring in USACE’s budgeting process, but a standard asset management approach to O&M spending is not fully developed or deployed across all USACE districts, the report says.

Commercial navigation users pay a share of the system’s construction costs through a fuel tax, but pay none of the roughly $650 million annual cost of O&M, which is funded through general tax revenues. A system more reliant on user payments would provide needed revenue for maintenance and promote economic efficiency while being more consistent with the federal posture toward other freight transportation modes that are more dependent on user fees.

Since the report was issued, the Corps has released a new capital investment strategy consistent with the report’s recommendations of taking a system-wide approach to maintenance that focuses on the most critical assets. The Academies’ study was funded by the Transportation Research Board and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Strategic Investments in Astronomy

New facilities under construction such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope offer great promise for major new discoveries in astronomy and planetary science. These facilities will be part of the U.S. ground-based optical and infrared astronomy system -- a combination of public and private facilities and a range of small-, medium-, and large-aperture telescopes and instruments that vary in sensitivity and functionality.

Optimizing the U.S. Ground-Based Optical and Infrared Astronomy System recommends improvements in observational, instrumentation, and data management capabilities as well as changes in coordination among federal and private partners to better position U.S. research efforts. The report’s guidance aligns with the scientific priorities identified in the Academies’ recent decadal surveys on astronomy and astrophysics and planetary science.

Kitt Peak National Observatory, photo by P. Marenfeld and NOAO/AURA/NSFThe best science will be achieved through a system that is well-coordinated and facilitates broad access to federally and non-federally funded telescopes as well as the data they produce, the report says. The National Science Foundation should direct the National Optical Astronomical Observatory to administer a telescope time exchange, in which participating public and private observatories would barter facilities, swap instruments, and engage in partnerships for telescope time and data access.

Looking to the future, NSF should plan for an investment in one or both Giant Segmented Mirror Telescopes expected to become operational in the 2020s, for example through shared operation costs, instrument development, or partnership in access or science projects. These telescopes are critical for addressing the next decade’s principal science questions, including the physics of planet formation, the growth of black holes, and the advent of the first galaxies.

The Academies’ study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Making Value for America

©shironosov/iStock/ThinkstockGlobalization, technological advances, and changing business practices are dramatically changing the way products and services are conceived, designed, made, and distributed. These forces are transforming the nature of work and manufacturing operations and present both challenges and exciting new opportunities for “making value,” says Making Value for America: Embracing the Future of Manufacturing, Technology, and Work, which it defines as using ingenuity to convert resources into goods, services, or processes that create solutions, serving the welfare and needs of society. In the face of the ongoing transformation, companies need to find new ways to make value. For instance, when the rise of digital photography changed the value of film, Fujifilm harnessed its expertise working with the antioxidant chemicals used in photography to develop antioxidants for cosmetics and optical films for use with flat-panel screens.

The report identifies a number of actions that businesses, economic development organizations, educational institutions, research organizations, and federal, state, and local governments should take. To prosper, U.S. companies must adopt best practices to improve innovation and productivity, train their workforces, and examine their business models to identify new ways to add value. Communities, governments, and educational institutions also have roles to play. By improving the skills of current and future workers, strengthening local innovation networks, and encouraging the long-term investments that lead to new products and businesses, they can help ensure that the United States thrives amid global economic changes and remains a leading environment for innovation.

The National Academy of Engineering’s study was funded by major gifts from Robert A. Pritzker and the Robert Pritzker Family Foundation and Gordon E. Moore, with additional support from Jonathan J. Rubinstein, Edward Horton, and a number of U.S. companies -- Boeing, Cummins, IBM, Qualcomm, Rockwell Collins, and Xerox.

Support for Flexible Electronics

flexible circuit film demonstrated by Penn State's Electronics Research Group, photo by Patrick Mansell “Flexible electronics” -- which involve circuits that can bend or stretch -- is an emerging technology with revolutionary potential for applications such as medical devices, solar panels, communications, and sensors. Foreign investment in R&D for these technologies is significantly larger than comparable U.S. investments, however. Targeted, large-scale programs have been launched in countries in East Asia and Europe to develop, refine, and ultimately manufacture flexible electronics within their national borders.

To remain competitive in this emerging market, the U.S. should increase funding of basic research and increase support for university-based consortia to develop prototypes, manufacturing processes, and products in close collaboration with contributing industry partners, says The Flexible Electronics Opportunity. Collaboration among industry, universities, and the government offers the best prospect for achieving sufficient levels of investment and the acceleration of new technology development for a vibrant flexible electronics industry, the report says. It notes, however, that significant U.S. expansion in flexible electronics is unlikely to occur unless there are mechanisms to address investment risks, intellectual property sharing, and the diverse technology requirements associated with development and manufacturing.

The report says university consortia could bring industry, universities, and various levels of government together to foster precompetitive applied research in flexible electronics. The U.S. should establish and support a network of user facilities dedicated to flexible electronics, and the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation could also help develop and initially support institutions, research, and relevant consortia. In addition, federal agency mission needs should help drive demand for these technologies while lowering costs, improving capabilities, and contributing to the development of a skilled workforce.

After the report was released, the Obama administration announced a new flexible hybrid electronics manufacturing innovation hub in San Jose, California. The Academies’ study was funded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Department of Energy.